There are two ways to win Top Chef. Way #1 involves cooking your way through round after round of punishing challenges to face down the last remaining female* in a bloody battle where the winner emerges at the right hand of Tom Colicchio, ordained by Bravo as Top Chef. This way seems exhausting. Way #2 involves displaying the impressive culinary skills necessary to make it deep into the competition, but maintaining an X-Factor that curries favor with the viewing public. The X-Factor can be pepperoni sauce, a flair for molecular biology, a red beard, or a giant set of owl eyes. By this inexact standard, Edward Lee was a Top Chef winner. His punny t-shirts and perpetual laugh made him a favorite in the eyes of fans and added to the torrent of positive press being heaped upon his Louisville restaurant, 610 Magnolia. Ed is in town this Saturday at Asia Nine in Chinatown, teaching an Asian fusion cooking class with his season’s Way #1 winner, Paul Qui.
BYT: I really appreciate you taking the time for the interview.
Ed: No problem.
BYT: One thing that always interests me about Top Chef is that it inspires really strong feelings about food that we at home will never taste. Do you think viewers would be able to distinguish the fine differences between the dishes that are presented?
E: You know, it depends on the person I guess. But um, I think that the judges do a pretty good job in not only critiquing the food but also kinda giving it an overall general description and trying to fit it in obviously. Its impossible to smell and taste something from the TV. I expect that their other job is not only picking the winner and the losers but also to kind of give the audience at home, you know, a sort of a real descriptive, sensual kind of — sense what the food is actually like when they’re sitting there. So I think for the most part they do an accurate job with that.
BYT: What personal effect has Top Chef had on you and your cooking?
E: I would say that my personal style in cooking hasn’t changed very much. Obviously the challenges that we are presented with are very unique to the television program. For example, I don’t walk into my kitchen an hour before service and say, ‘Hey guys, you know, let’s create a dish tonight.’ For most chefs, I think the process is very, you know, in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Its very calculating, its very slow, and there’s a lot of trial and error, and to that end. You know we do, and we’re not going to stray from that, or I’m not going to stray from that just because of, you know, what was on the show. Having said that, I think that going through an experience like that always broadens your scope. And, a lot of things that come up in your head in a moment of stress or panic or pressure. And later you have time to think about it and go, ‘oh you know, that was a pretty good idea, let me try and refine it.’ There’s some ideas, and obviously working with so many other chefs, the other 16 chefs in the show, you know, they inspire me a lot. So whether it’s Chris doing some of this gastronomic stuff or Paul doing his, sort of Asian cuisine, or Sarah doing her Italian thing. You know, you pick up little pointers here and there and somehow it’ll be incorporated into my food. Almost unconsciously, we’ll get stuff out. But, its always great to be exposed to so many different chefs.
BYT: So, you touched on something that I think a lot of people are interested in. Can you walk through the mental process of getting hit with some absurd challenge and taking it from “Oh God…” to completed dish?
E: You know, it’s weird, and I guess all chefs treat it differently. For me, it was almost like, you either win or lose that challenge like in the first 30 seconds cause there’s so little time. You can’t sit there and pull out a paper and pencil and start sketching things out. You just hope that whatever the first idea or two that pop into your head, you’re going to be able to run with it. You just hope something pops in that you can do something with. And the next thing you know, you’re going to the store and now you have to shop for your ingredients and once you’ve gone from Whole Foods to Fresh Market, whatever, there’s no turning back at that point. This is yours, however way you conceived it. So from conception to shopping, and then back in the kitchen, there’s really not a lot of room to improvise. So pretty much, that first minute or so when you’re conceiving the thing, that’s pretty much the turning point; right until the very end you’re committed to that idea. And that’s a scary thing because you don’t have time to sit there and edit yourself and so you just kinda have to trust your instincts.
BYT: Your t-shirt collection is truly excellent; can you talk about it a bit?
E: [laughs] Yeah, you know. I originally made the orange t-shirt for a little food dinner that I was doing, a pig dinner and thought, ‘oh that’d be funny.’ You know, instead of wearing a chef’s coat. I’ll make up this little t-shirt and its kind of funny. And about 40, 50 people and literally everyone of them came up to me afterward and asked me, ‘Oh, where can I get this t-shirt?’ And I literally had made two t-shirts because I thought it was funny. I don’t know, for some reason everyone loves them. So I just keep making them. And, you know, its just weird, like I’m not a designer, I don’t do this. And then I made an okra one and people liked those. So yeah, we have a t-shirt company now that makes them locally and sells them online. You can get them, and people can order them all over the country. So its fun.
BYT: Speaking of the local element. You had a lot of hometown pride throughout the season, a lot of Kentucky love. What keeps you staying in Louisville? And can you talk about the scene there a little bit?
E: Yeah, so it’s funny, I’m originally from New York. And I moved down here eight years ago, and I thought, if I don’t like it I can always go back to New York. And for some reason I instantly sort of fell in love with this place and Louisville has adopted me, kind of like an adopted son of the south. And one of the things that I really, beyond the local things and beyond all of the feel of things being a small town, one of the things that really inspire me here is that Louisville, as a city, from a culinary standpoint, is really, really starting to come into itself and its identity as an incredible renaissance and I love being a part of that process. Its almost like opening a restaurant, right. You see it from its conception and then you see it happen, and its process. Yeah, I grew up in New York and it was a wonderful food town, in possibly the world. But you never… You’re always playing catch up there, you’re always just part of this big sea of motion, of trends that you can never really get your arms around. Just so many things happening all instantaneously. Too many things happening. And I like Louisville because there are a couple of us in town that are really pushing towards to see some really great happen. And, we’re watching it happen before our very own eyes and its a special thing to be a part of. So, that for me, feels like this incredible project, that’s almost bigger than me. And it feels incredible to be a part of that.
BYT: As a quick side note, I’m originally from Birmingham, Alabama, and Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings who have taken Birmingham from nothing to an interesting scene; in DC, there’s a coterie of chefs who are doing the same thing.
E: And because of Stitt and Chris, you have kind of, what is in Birmingham, pretty known all around the country as the destination city. And that’s an incredible accomplishment, you know, for Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings. Its like a huge thing, you know. And for tourism, it draws pride to the city and its historic. Honestly, I think food is the most important thing in the world. So being a part of that kind of movement, I just think, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
BYT: What’s the best cocktail story you got from working Top Chef?
E: Oh from being on Top Chef? Ohhh, geez you know, there’s a lot. That’s a good question. Um, I think definitely, the Pee Wee Herman running around on the bicycle. The Pee Wee Herman thing. That was the experience of a lifetime. When we were doing the challenge, I thought, how are people going to react to Pee Wee Herman as a judge, because you know, he’s not a food person. But people love that guy, and everywhere I go, people are like, ‘What’s he like?’ And its funny that of all the guest judges, people are most curious, maybe excited, about Pee Wee Herman. I just think that’s hilarious. The fact that I just got to be in a room with him and you know, make pancakes for him.
BYT: Ed, thank you so much for taking the time out; we are very excited that you’re coming to town for the event.
E: Great, and I look forward to being in DC.